The terror of many is the fear of forgetting. They lurch through the middle years of life anticipating some future sentence of dementia. The irony of life is that we all forget so much all the time that what is left to be forgotten in dementia is dwarfed by comparison.
How many days of your childhood have you forgotten? How many events of your teen years? What we recall at this moment of life are but a few smattering moments from the scantiest collection of days. In my case a lot of memories seem to be weird unimportant things which struck me odd, meaningful, or somehow lodge in my mind. Not the important things. But of all the things you do remember how many of these things are mis-remembered? You think you know your life, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you would be surprised if you saw it all play before your eyes at death, a story new to even you in the re-interpreted place of our own minds. Dementia is the unmasked face of our entire lives, forgetting, confused, wandering.
I suppose some sense of this is part of my attraction to writing. Words on paper capture things for remembrance once forgotten. Through the trick of words the past can speak to the future, and I can make myself not forgotten to myself. At least, it feels a little that way. If one thing we fear is being forgotten by others, how much more the fear of forgetting ourselves? I fear that if I don’t write what I have learned, and thought, and experienced that it will all wash away into my past without leaving any final imprint. It will be as if it had not been. In my mind I know it isn’t true–the majority of people don’t write at all and they are no less people for it. But the feeling lingers.
An extra barb is added to this prick now that I have my own children and now their pasts quickly melt away into my shifting memory. My oldest has passed eighteen months. How much do I really still remember of those earliest days? Yes, I do remember snippets of days, events from the hospital, little flashes from the early days home. I remember hard sleepless nights, and a blur of many things. But the nuance of life, the minute details of that little boy’s unfolding, blossoming personality? Not really.
The little bits I remember are almost painful in their reminder of how much I have forgotten. One clear memory is how our son never needed to be taught how to climb off a bed or couch. Soon as he could locomote, he turned himself around and shoved himself feet-first off the side of our bed. The world waited below and he wanted to explore. The moment was remarkable in the combined reality of him being safety conscious enough at such an early age to intuit the right way to exit the bed, and at the same time completely oblivious to the reality that the drop was still considerably more than his short frame.
That early moment encapsulates so much of our boy’s life, his personality. He understands physical things with a surprising intuition, and he has a boundless curiosity. Another early memory is in his first winter before he could walk he started crawling across the snow of the yard, heading toward he didn’t know what except that off somewhere a dog was barking and he wanted to find it.
The feet-first incident also holds the incipient reality that our eldest is not truly a risk-taker. He thirsts to know, and loves to explore, and is quite ignorant of many dangers. But where he perceives dangers he seeks to avoid it–even if his conception of danger and risk management still only rises to the level of leaping feet-first off a cliff because head first is dangerous. He loved the idea of dogs until he realized they were agents beyond his control and perhaps hostile to his interests. We won’t even go into his dawning conception of worms. So he will love life and exploring and be terrified in equal and complicated measures.
Such is the prick, the sharp knowing that as I have my children I also in some sense lose them each day. I am trying to learn peace in the not writing, in being demented even now. My days are so full of the living with my wife and sons that I’m lucky to have a few stolen moments to write. A few words to capture one memory of a hundred I remember of the million I have forgotten. I try to remind myself that if something was well lived it does not lose its value even if I can no longer recall it to mind. If I am in my fifties with five kids growing fast and I can remember only a few things from each of their first years of life that loss will not lessen the good if I have loved them well.
My little boy loves to run and jump and climb and spin around. I see the body in motion, time spinning out through fingers and toes, moments tumbling past in flailing limbs. He likes to run for me so I can see how well he does. “Wow!” I say. “You are so fast!” And he runs again, life rushing onward.